MPhil in World History

people visiting the Departures exhibition

Visit to the Departures exhibition organised by The Barakat Trust and Asia House


World History at the University of Cambridge combines the study of global and imperial history with the study of Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific histories. It draws upon the expertise of faculty members in each of these areas, as well as in Middle Eastern, Oceanic and American history. The MPhil in World History enables students to develop strong expertise in this rich and expanding field of historical scholarship.

The MPhil in World History combines courses and a dissertation over a 9-month program. The core course focuses on historiographical debates in world history, leading to two options, usually in the history of a world region. From the first term, students also begin directed research for a 15,000 word dissertation, working closely with their supervisor from the Faculty’s World History Subject Group. Students will also take language classes, a component that is required but not examined. This may be in any language offered by the Cambridge University Language Centre, and may be elementary, continuing or advanced. In this way, the MPhil in World History offers students thorough preparation for an advanced research degree that will be highly valued in institutions across the world.

At a glance

All students will submit a thesis of 15,000–20,000 words, worth 70 per cent toward the final degree.

Students also produce three 3,000-4,000-word essays, two in Michaelmas term and another in Lent term; each essay is worth 10% of the final degree grade.

All students admitted to the MPhil in World History will be assigned a supervisor to work with them throughout the course, but crucially on the dissertation. Students will meet regularly with their supervisor throughout the course.

Students can expect to receive:

  • regular oral feedback from their supervisor, as well as termly online feedback reports;
  • written feedback on essays and assessments and an opportunity to present their work;
  • oral feedback from peers during graduate workshops and seminars;
  • written and oral feedback on dissertation proposal essay to be discussed with their supervisor; and
  • formal written feedback from two examiners after examination of a dissertation.

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Aims of the Course

The MPhil in World History aims to:

  • Explore why world history is one of the fastest growing fields of research in current historiography, and how post-colonialism, trans-nationalism and their revisions have driven this burgeoning literature;
  • Train students in the use of the printed, manuscript, visual and oral sources for the study of world history, and introduce the use of sources, within and beyond the colonial and national archives;
  • Offer an intensive introduction to research methodologies and skills useful for the study of world history, including language skills;
  • Introduce new regions, perspectives, connectivities and ruptures in historical processes in their widest extent, and in local, continental or oceanic settings; and
  • Provide an opportunity for students to undertake, at postgraduate level, a piece of original historical research in world history under close supervision: to write a substantial piece of history in the form of a dissertation with full scholarly apparatus.

By the end of the programme, students will have:

  • Knowledge of key debates and trends in world history and historiography;
  • Skills in presenting work in both oral and written form; and
  • Acquired the ability to situate their own research findings within the context of previous and current interpretative scholarly debates in the field.

The Course

Core Course: Debates in World History

Under what circumstances did the scholarly field of world history emerge? How do its concerns overlap with, and differ from, those of global and imperial history, area studies, and post-colonial studies? This core course for the MPhil in World History provides an overview of key historiographical debates, through close reading of significant interventions in the secondary literature. It is taught through a series of eight two-hour discussion seminars, in which students will participate actively. The course will be run jointly, and members of the World History group will take specific sessions on fields in which they specialise.

Topics for 2023-24:

  • Imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism 
  • Gender and world history
  • Global intellectual history
  • Economic history and world history
  • Race and racism in world history
  • Local and global approaches to religion
  • Deep history and environmental history

Option courses for 2023-24

The initial site of European overseas colonization, and the earliest destination for Africans in the transatlantic slave trade, the Caribbean region was the central nexus for the emergence of the modern world capitalist market.  As the earliest point of contact in the ‘Columbian exchange’ of crops, peoples, diseases, and animal species, the birthplace of the Atlantic sugar plantation complex, and the so-called ‘cockpit’ of strategic conflict between European powers, the Caribbean is a natural point of focus for scholars of political economy, race, colonialism, ecology, and culture. This course traces the strategic global conflicts and key economic processes that have tied the Caribbean region to Western Europe, West Africa, and North America.  Beginning with Spanish conquest and European inter-imperial conflict, this course covers the Haitian Revolution by which the initial site of European colonization gave rise to history’s first postcolonial nation.  The course goes on to cover the emergence of U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean basin, the development of Caribbean nationalism, the Cuban Revolution, and the rise of neoliberalism.  From Cuba’s Castroist dictatorship, to Haiti’s neoliberal ‘failed-state’, to the colonial holdovers of Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe and Martinique, Caribbean societies have followed very different trajectories notwithstanding their shared histories of colonization, slavery and sugar.

The primary focus of this option is on the renegotiation of African and Christian identities in the past two centuries, from early encounters between missionaries and African societies along the encroaching colonial frontier to African independency movements, decolonisation, the role of African Christianity in the Cold War, and finally the rise of Pentecostalism. A special interest of the module will be in enabling students to de-centre European agency and study how African politics, social change and cultural heritage were mobilised in the Africanisation of Christianity. Main themes for this analysis will be:

  1. The interplay of missionary, European, and African politics in the colonial remaking of Africa;
  2. The place of conversion as a nexus for negotiating the demands of European modernity with changing African social structures and identities;
  3. The role of science and translation in the vernacularisation of Christian cosmology;
  4. The transformation of African traditional religions through Christian contextualisation movements.

Theoretical concepts of sovereignty with their references to supremacy, perpetuity and indivisibility often sound clear and precise like mathematics. However, the practical reality of sovereignty is often fuzzy, contingent, and compromised. It is this practical reality, the course will focus on, to explore the historically and spatially contingent nature of sovereignty as a concept and the impacts of that concept on states and communities around the world. Through case studies both on the level of individual states and on the level of global governance, the course explores the dynamic interplay of global and local in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The course discusses questions such as: Were colonial companies extensions of their home states or were they themselves predatory states by another name? Was indirect rule some sort of ‘decentralised despotism’ as Mamdani suggests, or a form of layered sovereignty? Was there a ‘Wilsonian Moment’ as Erez Manela suggests, which inspired nationalisms around the world, or did these nationalist movements merely employ Wilsonian vocabulary? Was Wilson’s vision of sovereignty for European nations in contradiction to his policies in South and Central America? Was the role of the UN in the process of decolonisation reaffirming or undermining state sovereignty? Why have African regional organisations been more willing to challenge state sovereignty than similar organisations in Asia? What is the impact of climate change on sovereignty as foundational category?

The course is located at the nexus of global and world history. Teaching consists of seminar discussion classes, held once per week during Michaelmas Term. In the outline, each week is associated to a set of questions and a list of suggested literature engaging these questions and in some cases useful primary sources which are helpful to explore the themes further. The sessions are conceptualised as student-led.

Understanding the historical formation of empires and their impact on the present as well as the past is crucial to our comprehension of the contemporary world. In this course we examine a range of empires,  from around the world, with particular attention given to those with broad regional and temporal spans. Comparisons will be drawn between different kinds of empires, their emergence, transformation, and their relationships to nation-states.

This optional course draws on the exceptional range and depth of expertise in the Cambridge World History Subject Group. After an introductory session on conceptual definitions of empire, the course proceeds on a weekly basis with presentations by experts in their fields. These classes may include a focus on the Portuguese and Spanish empires as early modern European maritime formations; an examination of the land-based Ottoman and Russian empires; the modern French and British Empires; the colonisation of Africa and Asia after c.1800; African empires, settler colonialism, informal colonialism and company colonialism; contemporary American imperialism and expansionist China overseas. The course thus offer students a means to understand rival and connected empires in comparative perspective. Analytical and conceptual problems are highlighted throughout. Students are encouraged to enter into debate with expert tutors.

Gender was central to India’s experience of colonialism. From the institution of Sati in the 1820s, to later conflicts over widow remarriage and the age of consent, the status of Indian women attracted the reforming zeal of missionaries, colonial legislators and metropolitan liberals For Indian conservatives, reformers and later nationalists, women and the family were likewise potent symbols, conveying a variety of different class, community and national identities.   

In more subtle ways, colonialism posed troubling issues for men and masculinity. Religious reform societies and political leaders of all shades of opinion sought in different ways to create a new moral vision for men and gender within family, community and nation, often in the face of unsettling assertions of women’s rights and freedoms. Questions of masculinity in relation to class, community and property rights assumed equal importance fromC the 1930s, as India’s future leaders debated legislation over Hindu and Muslim personal laws. The heightened significance of gender was nowhere more striking than over the years of Partition, when violence against women on either side underscored their roles as symbols of community, class and state. 

Although this longer term history continues to find echoes, the independent states of South Asia have also set their own very different trajectories in the field of gender. Women are present at every level of politics, women’s organisations flourish, and the emergence of new urban middle classes across the region have reset sexual norms and expectations for men and women alike. At the same time, many regional societies have witnessed a savage backlash against expanding freedoms for young women, while the increasingly skewed gender ratio is testament to the greater valuation still placed on sons over daughters.              

This paper will give students a chance to explore the longer term history of gender relations in different parts of the subcontinent, as well as their changing forms in the present day. Following the work of Joan Scott, gender will be studied here both as a form of ideology often used to underpin hierarchy in many areas of society, and as a set of roles and practices with great power to shape men’s and women’s lives.  

We often think of the early modern period in terms of the historical events that took place in Europe and defined this historiographical unit of research. How would such definitions change when we put on global, inclusive, and neutral glasses? Could we speak of a global early modern period? What would be the historical contours of such a period and in what ways could it inform our 21st century socio-political and intellectual discourses? These are some of the guiding questions that we will be asking throughout the eight sessions of this paper.

The paper is divided into two sections: methodological and thematic. In the former, we will delve into the methodology of writing pre-modern history that is both globally inclusive and yet relevant. We will bring up the issues of periodization, chrono-labels and the concepts of Modernity and Early Modernity. We will also discuss the pros and cons of historiographical approaches such as comparative, entangled and connected histories, and their applicability to the study of the early modern period.

In the second section of this paper, we will critically re-visit some of the established defining features of the early modern period, such as the Scientific Revolution, printing press, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the global circulation of materials, objects and ideas and the emergence of new identities and social structures. We will be asking how a global perspective prompts us to rethink the definitions of these labels and their singularity in a global context.

Our weekly readings will aim to shed light on non-European cases—in particular, East and South Asia the Islamicate world and Americas—and serve as a basis for our weekly discussions in class. Additional readings or suggested themes of interest regarding any part of the world are warmly welcome. In particular, out-of-the-box approaches to the study of the early modern period—such as post-colonial, feminist, queer—would be a delightful contribution to our discussions.

This option will be shared with the MPhil Early Modern History.

There are five components to the MPhil in World History:

  1. core course
  2. first option
  3. second option
  4. dissertation
  5. language

Core Course

  • Debates in World History (weekly seminar x 8 weeks)

Option 1

  • weekly seminar x 8 weeks

Dissertation research and supervision


  • 1 session per week

Applying to the course

To apply to the MPhil in World History, you will need to consult the relevant pages on the Postgraduate Admissions website (click below).

Since applications are considered on a rolling basis, you are strongly advised to apply as early in the cycle as possible.

On the Postgraduate Admissions website, you will find an overview of the course structure and requirements, a funding calculator and a link to the online Applicant Portal. Your application will need to include two academic references, a transcript, a CV/ resume, evidence of competence in English, a personal development questionnaire, two samples of work and a research proposal.

Research proposals are 600–1,000 words in length and should include the following: a simple and descriptive title for the proposed research; a rationale for the research; a brief historiographic context; and an indication of the sources likely to be used. The document should be entitled ‘Statement of Intended Research’. Applicants are encouraged to nominate a preferred supervisor, and are invited to contact members of the Faculty in advance of submitting their application to discuss their project (see our Academic Directory:

Below are some anonymised examples of research proposals, submitted by successful applicants to the MPhil in World History. You may use these to inform the structure of your submission. Please note that they are purely for guidance and not a strict representation of what is required.

World History - Research Proposal 1

World History - Research Proposal 2


Assessment & Dissertation

Part I

Each of three modules in Michaelmas and Lent (one Compulsory Core, and two Options) will require a 3,000-4,000 words essay (or equivalent). Each will count toward 10% of the final degree mark, for a total of 30%. Taken together, these are Part I, and students must receive passing marks in order to move to Part II.

Students will also prepare a 2,000 word dissertation proposal essay due in the Lent Term. This essay will be unassessed but students will meet with their supervisor to discuss the essay and get feedback.

Part II

The Dissertation or Thesis is Part II of the course. Each student on the MPhil will prepare a thesis of 15,000-20,000 words.The thesis will be due in early-June and will count for 70% of the final degree mark.

An oral examination will only be required in cases where one of the marks is a marginal fail.

The Dissertation, or thesis, is the largest element of the course, worth 70% of the final mark.

Students are admitted to the University on the basis of the research proposal, and each student will be assigned a Supervisor who will support the preparation of a piece of original academic research. Candidates must demonstrate that they can present a coherent historical argument based upon a secure knowledge and understanding of primary sources, and they will be expected to place their research findings within the existing historiography of the field within which their subject lies.

All students should be warned that thesis supervisors are concerned to advise students in their studies, not to direct them. Students must accept responsibility for their own research activity and candidacy for a degree. Postgraduate work demands a high degree of self-discipline and organisation. Students are expected to take full responsibility for producing the required course work and thesis to the deadlines specified under the timetable for submission.